There’s a Term for This – And It Starts With “Cluster”

We live in Reston, the Mauve-Colored New Town on the Potomac. There are many good reasons to like the place. So many that we decided to buy another house here to move back to after Vienna. We’re really happy about that decision.

But it can get a little weird.

The whole town (of something like 55,000 souls) is governed by the Reston Association. This is effectively a giant homeowners’ association. They do good things, like maintain a network of walking/biking trails, pools, tennis courts, parks etc. And, very importantly to me, they keep the mini-mansions out.

You have to understand, the Washington, DC area is probably Ground Zero for ugly housing. A lot of it started out ugly: tracts of generic ramblers and colonials thrown up in the 1940s and 1950s to accommodate hordes of new federal employees. Followed by even uglier 1960s and 1970s split-levels. But most of these houses were too small for modern tastes. So many of them have been sarcophogized inside awkward new houses that are way too big for the lots and dwarf everything around them. With a “snout” garage. Oh, you have to love those.

Adding to the mix, there are a lot of people around here with too much money and too little taste. Or quite exotic taste. Paved-over front yards to resemble “estates” are not unheard of. Giant fountains. Big gold gates with lions rampant. Turrets–seriously, turrets.

On the other end of the spectrum: hot pink or lavender siding and multitudinous lawn ornaments. Now, I think those houses are actually kind of cute. I would not personally mind living next to one. But I understand not everyone shares that opinion.

Let’s just say, in most parts of the DC area, our street would have a least a couple of mini-mansions on it by now. It does not, and for that I am grateful.


We have something called the Design Review Board, or DRB. It is their job to approve changes to housing, which would include stuff like additions, renovations, etc. Fine. But they can go a little overboard. To the point where it starts to seem that their only real purpose is to impede real estate transactions. Even when people like us, quite frankly, have done the whole neighborhood and town a favor by renovating a nasty old fixer-upper.

Every time a house is sold in Reston, it has to be “cleared” by the DRB. They send an inspector out, and I swear, these people must be paid on commission for every violation they find. In our case, the “violations” included a replacement back door, under a deck, that you can’t actually see unless you are standing under the deck, that did not have a “decorative grille” matching the old door.

That would be the wooden door dating from 1968 that had been broken into at least once, had a barn-style lock on it because the original lock was broken, and was mostly held together with glazier’s putty. We replaced it with a steel door like this one. You know, a regular basement door that an 8 year old might actually have to work a little to break into.

We had to fill out a retroactive application for the door and have the neighbors sign it, then present it to the DRB for review and a final inspection before the house is sold. Among other items too ridiculous to mention.

Well, OK, I’ll mention one more: our backyard, which consists of  1/2 acre of woods, had some stumps in it from when we took down a dead tree. We had lined them up at the back of the yard to make a sort of fence-y thing that the cats and squirrels like to perch on. But RA claimed they were “debris” and we had to get rid of them before selling the house.

Let me just repeat that: tree stumps in the woods are considered debris.

Closing is tomorrow, by the way, and we still don’t know if this process has been completed because the inspector is not returning our calls and emails. Sigh.

The only small consolation is that the person we are buying from has to put up with the same silliness. Except, in his case, it isn’t all silliness. His house, which is a rental that has not been maintained all that well, really does need work, and there really is debris in the yard. (As in: not tree stumps.) Which we are quite happy RA is making him clean up.

But then it gets strange.

This house is part of a “cluster,” which is sort of an HOA within an HOA. We didn’t actually know this until a couple of weeks ago because the seller’s agent didn’t mention it. Funny thing about that.

The cluster charges households about $500 extra per year. As far as I can see, that pays for trash pickup, snow removal, and not much else. Several houses in the neighborhood are a bit tatty. (We are buying because it is two blocks from the future Metro station and bound to go up. Also, a small house with a small yard, which is what we wanted for our empty nest.)

Because it is a cluster, there is an extra set of design rules that we are supposed to abide by. Sigh.

The house needs siding repair, painting, and new gutters pronto. We are all set to do that–I even have the contractors lined up. I’m definitely the kind of landlord you want. I know what needs fixing and I don’t mind putting money into the property. No jackleg work here.

Oh, and by the way, I am leaving the country in two months. So, I’m on a schedule here, people.

Come to find out, I have to paint the house a color that is on the approved “palette.” Except that no one seems to be able to tell me exactly what that palette is. I emailed RA, as instructed by someone who has some undefined role in the cluster, and received in return a large PDF file consisting of badly copied, black and white versions of every DRB decision regarding colors since 1988.

Let me repeat: black and white copies of a color palette.

Except not even organized into a palette, and the most recent document, dated 2003, named a list of Duron colors that no longer exist.

So, I write back to RA, and say look, I’ll be happy to abide by the palette if you can just tell me what it is. These documents don’t tell me anything!

Several more emails are exchanged.

Finally, they reply that they are “sure that the Duron store can research historic colors.”

Hokay. Time to get off this weird train. I’m painting the house blue, got it? A nice blue. With gray trim. I’ll submit the design request, but if it comes back saying I need to stick to this “palette,” well, we can discuss that when I sell the house. Maybe by then someone will actually be able to tell me what color to paint it.


  1. I’m sure the Duron store folks would be happy to “research historic colors”….good grief! I forgot how much I hated HOAs until I moved back into a neighborhood with one!


  2. 1. I couldn’t stop laughing at the title of your post. and b) I HATE HOA’s so I moved downtown to an old house. Then it became a “historical district” and I wanted to bang my head against a wall! (PS-thinks for the tip on how to deal with catalogs!)


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